EVEN in a culture in which sex toys are a booming business and Oprah Winfrey discusses living your best life in the bedroom, a coed live-in commune dedicated to the female orgasm hovers at the extremes.
The founder of the One Taste Urban Retreat Center, Nicole Daedone, sees herself as leading “the slow-sex movement,” one that places a near-exclusive emphasis on women’s pleasure in which love, romance and even flirtation are not required.
“In our culture, admitting our bodies matter is almost an admission of failure,” said Ms. Daedone, 41, who can quote the poet Mary Oliver and speak wryly on the intricacies of women’s anatomy with equal aplomb. “I don’t think women will really experience freedom until they own their sexuality.”
A core of 38 men and women their average age the late 20s live full time in the retreat center, a shabby-chic loft building in the South of Market district. They prepare meals together, practice yoga and mindfulness meditation and lead workshops in communication for outside groups as large as 60.
But the heart of the group’s activity, listed cryptically on its Web site’s calendar as “morning practice,” is closed to all but the residents.
At 7 a.m. each day, as the rest of America is eating Cheerios or trying to face gridlock without hyperventilating, about a dozen women, naked from the waist down, lie with eyes closed in a velvet-curtained room, while clothed men huddle over them, stroking them in a ritual known as orgasmic meditation “OMing,” for short. The couples, who may or may not be romantically involved, call one another “research partners.”
A commune dedicated to men and women publicly creating “the orgasm that exists between them,” in the words of one resident, may sound like the ultimate California satire. But the Bay Area has a lively and venerable history of seekers constructing lives around sexual adventure.
San Francisco is proud of its libertine heritage, as Sean Penn recently demonstrated in “Milk.” The search for personal transformation, including through sex, led to the oceanside hot tubs at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, cradle of the human potential movement, and in the 1960s, communes flourished in the city, many espousing free love.
One Taste is but the latest stop on this sexual underground, weaving together strands of radical individual freedom, Eastern spirituality and feminism.
“The notion of a San Francisco sex commune focused on female orgasm is part of a long and rich history of women being public and empowered about their sexuality,” said Elizabeth A. Armstrong, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, who has studied San Francisco’s sexual subcultures.
As with many a commune before it, the leader of One Taste, Ms. Daedone, is a polarizing personality, whom admirers venerate as a sex diva, although some former members say she has cultlike powers over her followers. They say she sometimes strongly suggested who should pair off with whom romantically.
“There was always a pushing of peoples’ boundaries,” said Judy Silber, who lived at One Taste for three and a half years and left last fall. “We all knew it was a hardcore place, and we came to play hard.”
The group has drawn scant attention during its four and a half years perhaps because it is just the sort of community San Franciscans expect in their backyard although there was a brief sensation when The San Francisco Chronicle wrote about the group’s naked (nonsexual) yoga classes. Many voyeuristic non-yogis showed up. Now the yoga is fully clothed.
Those drawn to One Taste are an eclectic lot. Some are in life transitions, among them a baby-faced 50-year-old Silicon Valley engineer, a recently divorced man, who said that the practice of manually fixing his attention on a tiny spot of a woman’s body improves his concentration at work.
Most residents are young questers, seeking to fill an inner void and become empowered through Ms. Daedone’s blend of female-centric spirituality and sexuality. One, Beth Crittenden, 33, grew up in conservative Virginia tobacco country, a place, she said, where the fundamentals of the female anatomy were never discussed and masturbation was unmentionable. “I’d never done anything even in the dead of night,” she said.
She stumbled onto the center’s Folsom Street building, with its comfy overstuffed sofas, and enrolled in a women’s self-pleasure course because her relationships with men, as she put it, “kept running into a cement wall.”
She resisted offers to pursue further courses (for a fee), deleting the center’s incessant e-mail messages. But on the cusp of her 29th birthday, she tentatively returned. “I was scared to open up my life that much, but I was more scared not to,” she said.
Now an instructor herself, Ms. Crittenden talks about “the lingering velocity of my desire and my hesitation to give into it.”
Another member, Racheli Cherwitz, 28, had spent years grappling with anorexia and alcoholism, she said. In search of identity, she moved to Israel and became an Orthodox Jew.
Discovering One Taste, she said, has improved her self-image and given her “deep physical access to the woman I am and the woman I want to be.”
Ms. Cherwitz commutes to New York and offers private sensuality coaching at a satellite outpost operated by One Taste on Grand Street. Many of her clients, she said, are married Orthodox Jewish couples from Brooklyn.
In the One Taste world, a weirdly clinical pact is made between the women and men. There is no eye contact during orgasmic meditation. The idea, similar to Buddhist Tantric sex, is to extend the sensory peak and publicly share it before “going over,” as residents, who tend toward group-speak, call climaxing.
Although men are not touched by the women and do not climax, they say they experience a sense of energy and satiation. Both the strokers and strokees insist that all this OMing is really about the “hydration” of the self, the human connection, not sex.
Reese Jones, a venture capitalist-slash-geek-slash Ms. Daedone’s boyfriend, likens orgasmic meditation to massage.
“It’s a procedure to nourish the limbic system, like yoga or Pilates, with no other strings attached,” he said. “When you go to a massage therapist,” he added, “you don’t take the masseuse to dinner afterward.”
MS. DAEDONE’S inspiration and mentor as a sex guru was Ray Vetterlein, who achieved fame of sorts in sex circles by claiming to lengthen the average female orgasm to 20 minutes.
Mr. Vetterlein, now in his 80s, was inspired by Lafayette Morehouse, a controversial 40-year-old community still in existence in suburban Lafayette, Calif., that has been conducting public demonstrations of a woman in orgasm since 1976.
Morehouse’s founder, Victor Baranco, was a former appliance salesman who called his philosophy “responsible hedonism.” By some accounts, Mr. Baranco, who died in 2002, used coercive techniques of mind control.
“It was a huge ego-crushing machine, as any valid monastic tradition is,” said a man who lived at Morehouse for 20 years and did not want to be identified.
Ms. Daedone’s early career was hardly alternative: she studied semantics at San Francisco State University and then donned her pearls to help found an art gallery. But at 27, her world came crashing down when she learned that her father, from whom she was largely estranged, was dying of cancer in prison, after being convicted of molesting two young girls.
“Everything in my reality just collapsed,” she said. “My body turned to stone and crumbled.”
Her father had not behaved inappropriately toward her, Ms. Daedone said; on the contrary, he was a distant figure.
“There had been a way I felt close to him in this felt way, and then all of the sudden he would shut down,” she said. “I later came to understand that he was trying to protect me from himself, from his pathology.”
Her pathway back to life was initially Buddhism, which she pursued with a vengeance, intending to live in a Zen community. But at a party in 1998, she met a Buddhist who had a practice in what he called “contemplative sexuality.”
He invited her to lie down unclothed, set a timer and, while stroking her, proceeded to narrate in tender detail the beauty he saw, the colors that went from coral, to deep rose, to pearlescent pink. “I just broke open, and the feeling was pure and clean,” Ms. Daedone said. “In a strange way, I think at that moment I decided to live.”
Since opening One Taste, she has allowed it to go through numerous permutations; to her chagrin, it initially attracted misfits who “liked to get sloppy and grope each other,” she said.
She concedes that she has made mistakes among them the naked yoga class but she has been savvy about packaging her product. She changed the term “deliberate orgasm,” as it is called by other practitioners, to the more marketable “orgasmic meditation.”
Much of the community’s tone revolves around Ms. Daedone, a woman of considerable charm, although detractors regard her as a master manipulator.
“Nicole groks people,” said Marci Boyd, 57, the group’s oldest resident, borrowing a phrase from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” that connotes understanding someone so totally that the observer becomes one with the observed.
Elana Auerbach, an original resident, who left the group with Bill Press, who is now her husband, said the upshot of Ms. Daedone’s ability to become exactly the person an individual yearns for is that “they take on Nicole, exude Nicoleness.”
“You stop trusting yourself and start trusting Nicole,” she said.
Until recently, residents lived in tight quarters, sacrificing privacy for the group, two to a bed, 12 beds to a room, each bed separated by a curtain. Now they have private rooms in a building adjacent to the meditation center (both are somewhat providentially on Folsom Street, home of the world’s largest annual leather, bondage and fetish fair).
Ms. Auerbach said that she and Mr. Press eventually decided they wanted a life that was “heart-focused rather than genital-focused.” Now parents of a baby boy, they view their experience as a cautionary tale.
“Nicole promulgates a message and everyone else reflects that,” Mr. Press said.
Ms. Daedone insists she does not invite or like the all-powerful image. “There’s a high potential for this to be a cult,” she said.
She recently moved out of the communal living quarters, in part to fight this tendency. “Whenever I was in the space, everybody treated me like a guru,” she said. “I’d wake up and people would come sit on my bed.”
Now she lives with Mr. Jones, her boyfriend, a braniac who sold a computer software company he founded, Netopia, to Motorola for $208 million, and makes financial resources available to One Taste, including helping to buy a retreat in Stinson Beach, Calif.
Ms. Daedone wants One Taste to be mainstream, and to that end the center presents lectures by rabbis and Tibetan monks, along with public classes and workshops in “mindful sexuality.”
But a One Taste Peoria seems hard to imagine. At a weekend workshop at the center recently, attended by scores of men and women interested in learning orgasmic meditation, Ms. Daedone outlined her philosophy.
“In our culture,” she said, while beatifically seated on a cushion, “women have been conditioned to have closed sexuality and open feelings, and men to have open sexuality and closed feelings. There’s this whole area of resistance and shame.”
Soon the aspiring OM-ers, including a couple from Marin County hoping to rekindle their marriage, gathered on the floor kindergarten-style around a massage table. Justine Dawson, a wholesome-looking 34-year-old community resident, took off her robe and hopped up. Another resident, Andy Roy, 28, began his task, his concentration so exquisite that he broke into a sweat.
Attendees were instructed to call out their feelings, and many did, describing the turn-on they, too, were feeling.
When it was over, Ms. Dawson emanated radiance worthy of a Caravaggio, a youthful innocence. In another context, it might have been a profound and romantic moment between two lovers. Instead, a different image came to mind: the post-coital interview by Howard Cosell, holding a microphone, in Woody Allen’s “Bananas.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 22, 2009
An article last Sunday about the One Taste Urban Retreat Center, a
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: March 22, 2009